If you had asked me ten days back when I would be contemplating my next trip abroad I would have laughed in your face with incredulity. Alas, mere mortals we that do not know what the new dawn holds for us! A telephone call on 31st May set such an unusual string of events in motion that I am right now waiting for the gate to open for the red eye Thai flight to Bangkok, en route to Chiang Mai.
The call was from SK Modi, the Proprietor/CMD of BIOP, a leading iron ore export firm based in Bellary. Modi is exceptionally gifted in making friends and keeping them. I had made his initial acquaintance in September 2003 when I was posted in Hubli, then recently established as the headquarters of South Western Railway. That was the beginning of the iron ore export boom with China picking up anything even vaguely resembling iron ore to meet its commitments to build state-of-the-art infrastructure for the 2008 Olympics. South Western Railway was the star on the horizon with more than 10,000 rake indents pending for loading iron ore at various stations in its jurisdiction. Mine owners started amassing wealth beyond their wildest dreams, but few honestly accepted it. Modi was an exception. He used to narrate his early days of struggle when nobody wanted iron ore fines and mine owners were at the mercy of the consumers. He constantly thanked the Almighty for the riches that came his way. He used his extra finances to indulge in his passion for cars, tourism related foreign travel and experimenting with electronic technology.
Over a period of time we became family friends and I remember speaking to him on a few occasions even after I moved to Cochin after taking leave of the Railways. Thus, it was only natural that I announced my relocation to Toranagallu with JSW Steel as soon as I moved in there. He was abroad – not unusual. The next time I called him was to book a Maruti car at his Bellary dealership. He was abroad then too; he arranged to get the booking done. He called up on 31st May to invite me to his daughter’s Mehendi ceremony in Bellary on the 2nd June. I apologised to him for I was travelling on duty to Chennai and Bangalore on the 1st and hence, would not be able to attend the function. He insisted that I drop in to his office on the way to the Guntakal railway station. I could not refuse that.
In his office Modi told me of his plans to celebrate the Mehendi in a humungous AC tent with dancers from Brazil and Russia! The program he detailed to me for the wedding in Chiang Mai, Thailand, was nothing short of extracts from fairy tale books I had read in my childhood. He must have fathomed the desire in my heart to attend the wedding, going by the widening chasm between the two sets of teeth. He had made arrangements to house 800 guests in Le Meridien and Shangrila Hotels in Chang Mai. Group booking in flights to Bangalore to Chiang Mai via Bangkok was also done. He offered air tickets and accommodation to attend the wedding. It was too good to believe. And, as luck would have it, I had my passport with me for Modi to arrange visa. Thus, in less than half an hour, the Thai trip for a ‘Destination Wedding’ was given shape to. The final requirement was the permission of my boss to take leave (it was easier than I expected).
By the time I returned from the visits to Chennai and Bangalore all except the visa was done, which I was to obtain on arrival in Bangkok. The wedding invitation card is by itself a piece of art. The invitation contained programs for three days in Chiang Mai. Besides, it also had a travel kit which did not leave anything to be ‘found out’. It even had baggage tags and ribbons for easy identification of the group baggage. The ‘Travel Guidelines’ listed every little matter that was needed to be known and acted upon, including the amount of foreign exchange that must be on the person arriving in Thailand and the weather conditions likely to be encountered.. The wedding itinerary of Ankit and Swetha did not leave a minute for any activity outside the Shangri-La Hotel in Chiang Mai. I had downloaded information on places to be seen in Chiang Mai. If I am to attend all the programs I will not have any time for it till the 13th. So be it. Attending the wedding and all its programs is the prime purpose of the visit.
Over the past two days I was more concerned with what I should pack for the trip and mentally trying to picture the likely gathering for the special functions. This can put a lot of pressure on the sartorial choices. In the end I discovered I had little choice for I had only to carry what I would fit into. Weight gain over the past three months in Toranagallu pared down choices to the bare minimum. The next issue was to arrange transport to the Bangalore International Airport. Here again, I was in luck. A Siemens engineer was being ferried to the airport this afternoon. I shamelessly tagged along.
The flight was scheduled to leave a half hour after midnight. Such flights are absolute ‘sleep slayers’. I reached the airport well in time to be told that the flight is delayed by an hour. After a dinner of Pizza I had over three hours to kill. I sauntered around all the Duty Free shops and even picked up a bottle each of Lagavulin and JW Double Black – only to be told that it may not be permitted into Thailand with immigration and customs clearance slated in Bangkok. I let go of the ‘liquid desires’ for I did not want to take the chance that could possibly sink me by more than $100. Rest of the time I spent watching late night news and working a tad on the laptop. The flight was full and it pulled out a few minutes to 2am from the parking bay. A most fortuitous journey was underway.
Some time into the flight – think it was 3 am IST – I was woken up for dinner; had a full meal over a gin and tonic! A strong cup of coffee set me up for a couple of hours of sleep.